We may sometimes feel confident enough to cross a line beyond which there is no return. But what is the actual relation between confidence and success? Can we really say that Caesar was successful after crossing the Rubicon because he was confident? And subsequently, that he became a victim of his own success, and that he was assassinated because he was overconfident? Is there such a thing as a right level of confidence? Phil Rosenzweig offers a rigorous answer to these questions in his book Left Brain, Right Stuff.Continue reading →
While contemplating the incredible accomplishments of the Roman leaders who had fought for the Republic throughout its history, Sallust wrote that there was a “flame in the breast of extraordinary men” whose soul “was most irresistibly fired to accomplish acts of virtue.” Fire is a metaphor for the ambition that drives people to take great risks, and it would not be wrong to call this the flame of life, a strange force that burns fiercely in human hearts.
The Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, was built on a series of islands in what was once a huge lake in the Valley of Mexico. The first time the Spanish saw the city, they were impressed by its massive temples, its brightly painted and beautifully decorated buildings, its royal gardens, its aqueducts, the orderliness and cleanliness of its streets, and the diversity of food sold on its large market. But the Aztecs also engaged in behavior that appeared strange and repulsive to Europeans, such as their extremely brutal rituals of human sacrifice.
The Ancient Greek temple of Apollo at Delphi had an inscription in its forecourt that read γνῶθι σεαυτόν meaning “know thyself.” The inscription implies that most men have little self-insight and that contemplation and introspection leads to wisdom. Socrates took this to heart and declared that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
In his book A Fragile Life, the philosopher Todd May offers a highly interesting perspective on the different schools of thought at the heart of Stoicism, Buddhism and Taoism. While these ancient systems of thought do offer many useful tools that can help us face adversity, they also idealize a certain form of invulnerability. The author argues that some desirable aspects of human life are to be found in our exposure to potential sources of suffering. I here expose May’s argument while reflecting on its significance as a modern way of life.
For the ancient Greeks, sôphrosune (σωφροσύνη) or temperance was a key virtue. The ancients understood that our emotions and desires can be excessive, and that a virtuous person must have a capacity for moderation. Sôphrosune was accordingly understood as something close to “self-restraint.” As with the other virtues, temperance is not innate; it must be learned. But what exactly does it mean, to be tempered and moderate in our endeavors? Is there something we can call a balanced life — not too wild and excessive, but also not too inhibited and frustrating?
Can we really trust our emotions? The world seems full of people who end up tortured by their feelings. Can’t we just get rid of all that anger and sadness, all that guilt and envy, all that anxiety and delusional rage? Many ancient philosophies and religions aim to achieve this very goal through systems of control and repression, praising the benefits of having a non-emotional response to situations. But there are also very valid reasons for why we have the emotions we have, as the clinical psychiatrist Randolph M. Nesse points out in his book Good Reasons for Bad Feelings. It’s worth thinking about their implications for our well-being.
There is likely no experience more human than that of feeling trapped by one’s circumstances. How people deal with this experience seems to vary enormously, something I realized after having read, in sequence, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road followed by Fernando Pessoa’s Book of Disquiet. The two books somehow provide extremely different takes on how to escape one’s current condition.
When he was fourteen years old, the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch witnessed the death of his older sister Sophie from tuberculosis, at a time when there was no treatment for the disease. The tragic event deeply affected the young Munch, who remained obsessed with it for much of his early adult life, painting and re-painting the moments before Sophie’s death in a canvas known as The Sick Child.
Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has for a long time been the most widely accepted secular explanation for how living organisms change over time. In the social sciences, however, Darwinism spawned a mire of theories on the role that evolutionary mechanisms play in shaping human society.
More than anything, there is widespread belief that competition filters out the weak and promotes the “survival of fittest,” and that markets select a certain class of talented and deserving people. Reality is more complex than this: many obviously talented and deserving people are not particularly successful in their pursuits, while many people with no apparent talent sometimes reap incredible rewards.